I sat bolt upright in bed, my heart thumping away. Panic gripped my chest. How could I be this old and yet still be this ignorant? But there it was – I had once again Netflix’d and YouTube’d my way through the long dark evening, the latest in a long line of internet binges. It began with my usual washing up routine – dancing around to some Steely Dan while trying not to knock anything over – before I graduated to Russell Brand’s latest bit of truth-telling / conspiracy theorising. Then on to some movie that I got half-way through before I ditched it and watched half a Faraday Lecture about quantum physics, which I jettisoned in favour of going to bed. My final thought before passing out was, ‘Who knows what it all means anyway?’
‘Well,’ I told myself as the clock chimed four, ‘you should know, by now but since you clearly don’t, you should find out, and fast’. Life was gurgling away like a bath emptying down a plughole, and soon all that would be left would be hair and nail clippings and I’d wish I had made more of the hot water. I would read Nietzsche. He’d been cleverer than anyone – he would know the meaning of it all; reading him would be a multivitamin for my mind. I went back to sleep.
The next day I was down at my workshop contemplating a warped plank of ash my friend Camilla had given me. What the hell could I turn that into? I had almost decided to chop it up to take home for my wood burner when I grabbed a bit of cardboard and sketched out the shape of a fish. I cut it out, traced around it and, picking up my coping saw, began hacking out a small spratty-looking thing. An hour later, my first pilchard was born.
I peered at it and poked it with my finger – not so much a Eureka moment as a hmmm moment. Arty people eulogise about the glory of this ‘hmmm’. If you’re going to come up with anything original, you have to learn to let yourself follow ‘the thread’ – the thought of which makes most people, including me, feel quite queasy. But there it is: the golden thread of artistic pretentiousness. Grasp it and you’ll soon be smiling like a modern-day Mona Lisa: creative, enigmatic, and yet smaller and less impressive than one thought one would be.
Fact is, I don’t know if it was the thread that made me make it or not, but it was quite a nice pilchard. I picked it up, weighed it in my hand and thought something along the lines of, ‘Hmmm, it fits across my palm in a nice way.’ When I gripped it… it felt nice. So then I got to thinking, why did it feel so pleasant? Answer: because I, along with everyone else, am stressed, and somehow, when you’re stressed, holding onto a piece of wood that’s been shaped to fit your palm feels kinda good. A bit of sanding and oiling, and kinda good became, yeah – good. A hop, skip and a bit of cartooning later and I’d made a Penryn Peace Pilchard, along with a daft, quirky instruction manual. The very latest innovation in worry bead technology had been born. I put it on Etsy, and it began to sell.
I was down at the local arts centre recently, dropping a friend off. Something of an artistic nature was in progress. In the central space, a paint-smeared, and extremely bored-looking little boy was ‘playing’ in a mound of damp paper slathered with the brightly discordant remains of a children’s poster-painting party. He was being filmed by a fellow in full possession of a Mona Lisa smile – not only had this guy grasped ‘the thread’ but he knew it too. My first thought was, ‘who’s going to clear up all this mess?’, my second, ‘why would the sight of someone trying to be creative be so cringe-making?’. Maybe Nietzsche would know. Over the next few days I read, I absorbed, I composted.
Meanwhile, the success of the pilchard led me to follow the shoal in the direction of Valentine’s Day, and the by now marginally more philosophical contemplation of another piece of aged wood: this time, a nice bit of antique pine from an ancient Welsh dresser I’d helped dismantle. I dismissed the usual tropes – who’d buy a wooden oyster anyway? In the end, I came up with the Falmouth ‘Sole’ Mate, a new way to show your lover that you love ’em. Neat. Plus, there was a new user-manual, which was great fun to design. I was set.
I must admit that after all my inventing, my study of philosophy, my pondering on the meaning of things and my new, exalted position in life – an artist inventor, no less – I felt it was time to pass on all I’d learned. I smiled my own Mona Lisa smile and sat down to write this piece. What had I learned? A quote from that Nietzsche book I’d been reading floated into my mind. It ran something along the lines of this, I paraphrase:
You should never listen to the majority opinion on anything because by the time an idea has percolated through to the masses, it’s already a wizened and corrupted thing, devoid of the originality that made it powerful in the first place.
My heart swelled. I’d never listened to anyone, no matter how sensible they seemed. I didn’t like contrived ‘art’ because it was already so passé. I must be a great thinker indeed, but so mild mannered, so self-obfuscating, that for all this time I’d hidden my light from the world. No more. Picking up my own pilchard, I gave it a squeeze and scanned the first pages of Beyond Good and Evil looking for the full quote. I couldn’t find it. I looked harder. The more I looked, the less sure I was that I’d read this bit before. Could it have come from a later chapter? Impossible: I’d paused at the end of chapter one and had yet to resume.
Then came the bombshell. Where was the quote? Where was it? Ah. There. In the preface to the introduction – the bit some bloke wrote for the benefit of the ignorant.
I wonder what’s on Netflix tonight…